Psychology and Christianity

For a Good Cause

  A great deal of our daily mental activity is given over to causes.  Not the charitable kind (“Give money to this walk-a-thon; it’s for a good cause!”), but the kind where we assume specific causes to all the events, actions, interactions, behaviors, and circumstances in our lives.  Imagine you are in a meeting, and you see the person next to you lose their temper.  Your mind will spring to action, to attribute a cause to their anger.  The nature of the attributed cause often says a good deal more about ourselves (personality, history, psychology etc.) than it does about the event itself.  So when this person gets angry you may attribute her behavior to:

  • She’s been treated unjustly.
  • She is over-worked.
  • She’s having marital problems.
  • I must have said something that made her angry.
  • It’s her time of the month.
  • She’s an angry person.
  • She has a short fuse.
  • She’s a fiery red-head.
  • She’s on / off her medication.
  • She was out late.

Of course this list can go on and on.  This is an example of a causal attribution

The theory of Causal Attribution first appeared in the work of Fritz Heider in a book entitled The Psychology of Interpersonal Relations (1958).  Other’s have developed this theory far more than I am going to do here, and it does get very complex (as well it should!).  But for now, I want you to notice a few things about yourself.

First, you make causal inferences all the time.  You have been taught or have come to believe in a series of cause and effect relationships and your mind makes these inferences constantly and usually instantly. 

Second:  Our assumption of causes gives us a sense of control over our environment.  Things are less scary when we think we know why they happened. This control is largely I think, an illusion.  But we all need to live with a sense of basic orderliness, and most of the time, this illusion works pretty well.  When it doesn’t we have problems and we can be thrown into a psychological crisis:  A topic for some future blog post.  You will notice this control factor when you feel smug or superior or oddly comfortable when you think you know why something has happened and those around you do not. 

Third:  There are two basic types of causal inferences:  Internal and External.  Internal inferences are when we attribute the cause of an event to internal characteristics of the actor in an event.  Using our example above, the statement “She has a short fuse” is an internal attribution. External inferences attribute causes to the environment or circumstances outside of the individual. So in our example above, “She is over-worked” is an external attribution.  The curious thing here, is that when we are observing someone else, we tend to attribute the cause to something internal to the person, and when we are the actor, we tend to attribute the cause to something outside of ourselves. This is particularly true when it is a negative event.  We are generally more benevolent to ourselves than we are to others.

Fourth:  We almost never take into account enough factors in making our attributions. This is where this article ties into the simple and complex article.  Interpersonal relationships are by nature complex. But we make simple attributions, and we make them quickly.  It’s easier and more comfortable to us to do it this way.  In marital conflicts, parenting conflicts, work conflicts, we rarely include ourselves as a contributing factor.  As in the Simple and Complex article, the more variables, the more factors we can keep in mind at once, the more accurate our attributions will be.

Fifth:  Because of number four above, our attributions are prone to error.  They can, of course, be completely wrong, but more often, they are wrong by degrees, or inaccurate by degrees.  Hopefully, the longer we live and the wiser we become the more accurate, or perhaps tentative, our attributions will be. When the bulk of our attributions, particularly interpersonal ones are inaccurate we are neurotic (distortion of reality).  When the bulk of our attributions are just simple wrong, we are psychotic (out of touch with reality).

There are more points to be made here, but I’ll leave that to you to pursue through the above article links (isn’t the web Grand!?).  But now that you have a general concept of Causal Attribution theory consider the following.

The Media spend a great deal of time speculating on causal attributions. We are fascinated with this stuff. It happens every day and in every genre of talk show: Sports, Politics, Celebrity Press, “Reality” shows, Environmental awareness, Science, Business etc.  There are vast amounts of money being exchanged in our media saturated economy making causal attributions, and most of them are way too simplistic to be of much use. But they make for great entertainment, and the more outrageous the attributions are, the more attention they’ll garner (and the larger the audience share).  We are addicted to this stuff and wear it like a badge  (“I listen only to Fox”, “I watch CNN”, “I’m a Ditto head”, “I saw on Oprah . . .”, “Did you hear what they said on Sports Center?”).  The danger here, is when we consume this stuff without discrimination.  This stuff is primarily entertainment and is driven by advertising revenue and building market share (yes, that is a causal attribution). But it has a Huge impact on the American psyche by helping us to form causal attributions, that are never really examined for accuracy.  By the way, almost all American media make one fundamental causal attribution error: They leave out God as a causal agent.

The trend in science (a huge source of American causal attributions) is towards biological or naturalistic reductionism.  The science press (which is largely how we consume scientific investigations) love to make pronouncements about how what we once believed to be true is now all wrong, and that some new discovery has really set us straight.  Just peruse the science headlines and you’ll see what I  mean.  In health (medicine) and behavior science (psychology) the trend for the last 20 years has been towards biological reductionism: To reduce all causes of human behavior to biological causes such as genetics or brain chemistry.  Depression, is no longer viewed as the complex condition that it truly is, but simply a factor of low serotonin levels, so all you need to do is take a pill.  ADHD is viewed as an inherited genetic trait, and we have a pill for that too (I'm being intentionally sarcastic here).  There is a huge monetary incentive to push biological reductionism and our psyche’s are ripe for it:  We love simple explanations that relieve us of the burden of responsibility.

Much of therapy involves helping people examine and hopefully modify their causal attributions. There is also much resistance to it.  Couples want to see “the other” as the cause of the difficulties and don’t want to examine their own contributions.  Parents want their children “fixed” but don’t want to make the life-style changes necessary, because they are invested in locating the sole cause of the child’s behavior in the child.  Individual’s will over or under value their own contributions to their life choices.  People with medical problems don’t want to own their own contributions to being sick.  People want symptoms to go away but want to attribute those symptoms to someone else, and don’t want to make the link to their own life-styles or choices.  But as I like to teach my counseling students, dealing with this resistance is the work of psychotherapy. 

Jesus said it this way: 

“Why do you ?look at the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?  “?Or how ?can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ and behold, the log is in your own eye? “You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.”   (NAS Mathew 7:3-5).

One final observation.  Do you include God in your own personal causal attribution theory?  Many people do, and in fact most do if the survey’s are right.  Are your causal attributions about God complex or simplistic?  We can make errors in our attribution of causes by sweeping them all under the God rug:  “I guess this was God’s will for me.” “Why did God make me lose my job?”  “The fool has said in his heart, There is no God.”  “He must have done something wrong and God is punishing him for it.”  Be very, very careful with evoking God in your causal attributions.  God has done a pretty good job in explaining Himself in His Word, and we have done a pretty good job of misunderstanding or misusing it.  Theology is complex which is why there are so many with Ph.D’s in the subject.  In the secular world, the most common error is to leave God out as a causal factor.  In the Christian World, the most common error, is to over-attribute things to Him (particularly problems and suffering) that He has no part in.  The best solution for this, like with any relationship, is to get to know Him well.  Then it’s much easier to say things like, “That doesn’t sound like God at all” or “That really is a God-Thing.”

So, I challenge you, to observe your own process of how you assume causes for things. Take this background process, and bring it to the front, where you can watch and examine it. Be brave in throwing out attributions that are in error, or are too simple to be accurate.  Be willing to tolerate the anxiety of “I don’t know why” in pursuit of greater accuracy (and sanity).  Begin to think in terms of "contributing factors" rather than simple one to one, cause and effect equations.

Christianity and Anger . . .

Ravi Zacharias' part two podcast on Anger stirred up more thoughts and I want to put them "out there" for others to play with.  Ravi always makes you think and I'm guessing I could use his podcasts as stimulus for many a blog post. I think conservative Christians as a rule are very uncomfortable with the subject of anger.  Don't get me wrong; we all get angry sometimes. We simply are not very good at understanding, thinking, or talking about it.  For that matter, anger is not written about a whole lot in the psychopathology literature.  I think most psychological theorists think anger is normal and inevitable and most clinicians believe in anger control or management, and not anger reduction.  Anger, which perhaps causes more behavioral, relational, work, and legal problems than any other emotion, is not categorized in any pathological way, except for a very obscure diagnosis:  Intermittent Explosive Disorder, which frankly has more to do with a type of seizure, than the kinds of character or selfish anger that gets us all in trouble.

In Christian culture anger is treated as something to stay away from. This cultural attitude is not very helpful because people who are angry are simply told to “stop being angry” and generally to stop being angry pretty quickly.  But we are rarely taught how not to be angry, or when our anger is appropriate or acceptable, or how to apply self-control to our anger.  Christian culture tends to encourage repression of anger, which is generally self-destructive.  Because anger is culturally rejected, Christians are often dishonest with themselves and others when they’re feeling angry.

There is a great deal of misquoting of the Bible that contributes to this denial and repression.  The first and biggest error is what we’re taught about Jesus and His expression of anger.  Ask any well-heeled group of Christians where the Bible talks about Jesus' anger and they will, without hesitation, en masse, tell you it is when Jesus cleansed the temple.  Every time the cleansing of the temple is portrayed in movie or audio dramatization, Jesus is depicted as blowing His top over the money changers in the temple, and in an angry fit, over-turning tables and driving out the animals that were brought in for sale.

At this point most of you are thinking . . . "Yeah, well, He was angry, wasn't He?"  The short answer is We Don't Know.  The text never tells us He was angry, and there is a good bit of exegetical evidence that His cleansing of the temple (which he did more than once) was purposeful and calculated.  Actually, everything Jesus did was intentional.  His cleansing of the temple was certainly not impulsive, and it was not done out of a fit of anger.  The only clue we have to His emotion and motivation was the attribution by His disciples that Jesus was fulfilling prophecy from Psalm 69:9 which said, "Zeal for My Father's house will consume Me."  Zeal is not the same as anger.  Jesus may have been angry, but He may also have been very calm and business like.  When he cleansed the temple, the Pharisees questioned him on his authority for what He was doing.  They didn't call out the temple guards on someone who was losing His temper. Jesus was challenging the religious status quo when he tipped over those tables and He knew exactly what he was doing.  This contrasts greatly with our anger most of the time, which kind of blinds us and impairs our judgment.

So . . . Let’s put this one to rest:  The cleansing of the temple is not a textual example of Jesus' being angry.  There are some examples but it isn't here.  The thing is, this temple episode is exactly the kind of thing that would make most Christians angry and so we project our own feelings and motives onto Jesus and onto the text.  We also use this episode as a rationalization or justification for our own anger when we think we're being treated unfairly or someone is bending the rules or something.  We rationalize, "Well Jesus was pretty honked off when he cleansed the temple, so certainly I'm on good ground here for being angry at (fill in the blank)."    At the cleansing of the temple Jesus was intentional and calculated.  He was not out of control and He may not even have been loud.

Want to know when Jesus was angry?  There are two incidents in the Gospel of Mark (there may be more, but I’m focusing on these).  The first was when Jesus was angry at the hard-hearted Pharisees that were more interested in their religious traditions than seeing a person healed of a deformity (Mark 3:5).  The second was when Jesus' disciples tried to keep mothers and their babies away from Him.  The text (Mark 10:13) says he was indignant (NIV and NAS) and the Greek word is actually a little stronger than that (much aggrieved comes close).  And he was indignant here with his own apostles, not with the Pharisees or "sinners" or with a political system.  Curious, isn't it?  No one remembers this one.  It's not the kind of thing that would make most of us angry or aggrieved.

Another commonly misunderstood passage on anger is from Ephesians chapter 4.  In this oft quoted text we find the phrase, "Be angry and do not sin."  This tells us, of course, that anger is not inherently sinful.  Anger is I think a generally morally neutral emotion.  Our anger is neither here nor there, it just kind of is.  It can cloud our judgment certainly and it can make us unpleasant to be around, and if not checked, can unduly affect our behavior.  But the actual feeling itself is just, well, a feeling.  Our anger can be set off by things, and this text tells us that we need not do sinful things simply because we're feeling angry.

This verse then goes on to say, "Do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give the devil an opportunity."   Now you will hear 99.9% of sermons tell you that this means you shouldn't stay angry and that by the end of the day you should be over it.  To continue to be angry, this teaching asserts, is a sin (even though the text does not clearly say this).  The problem with this interpretation is twofold I think.  First, I don't think we can will away our anger and we can't always resolve things quickly and neatly within a day.  Some things may make us feel angry for a long, long time.  I'm not advocating this, mind you, but it can happen, and I don't think it's necessarily a sinful state.  It is a state in which we need to be very careful because most of us have impaired judgment when we're angry.

The second reason I think this is a bad interpretation is that this phrase "Do not let the sun go down on your anger" is a Jewish or Hebrew phrase, not an American Western phrase.  To the Jew the day began at sundown.  I don’t think Paul is giving us a metaphor for time in the passage.  I think he's giving us a metaphor for truth and truth's character expression:  honesty.  Paul is saying, "You can be angry and not sin.  But be mindful of your anger, be honest about it. Don't let the sun go down on your anger.  Don't hide it, or pretend, or delude yourself into thinking you’re not angry when you really are.  If you are dishonest (repressed or in denial) with yourself and others about your anger then you've got real problem because then you've given the devil a great opportunity to manipulate you and to motivate you to sin.”  You see, the devil has power over us only when we allow him to deceive us, and when we are self-deceived he has a major opportunity.

So why do I think Paul is talking about truth and not time?  Well, the context of the passage for one.  There are two great themes in the fourth chapter of Ephesians:  Christian Unity and Truth/Honesty.  The truth theme is juxtaposed with dishonesty and deceitfulness throughout the chapter.  Christian unity is juxtaposed with contentiousness.  In fact, when Paul says "be angry" he says it right after he says "Lay aside falsehood" and "Speak truth each one of you with your neighbor."  The metaphor about the sun going down is all about being honest with yourself and others regarding anger.  When you're told not to be angry any more by the end of the day, you may in fact be led into doing the very thing that Paul says not to do.  It motivates us to pretend we're no longer angry when the sun goes down, when we may actually still be seething.

By the way, that phrase "Be angry and do not sin" is a quotation from an Old Testament Psalm.  The whole point of that psalm is to lie on your bed at night and contemplate or examine yourself, to be deeply honest with yourself and with God (Psalm 4:4).

Okay.  So I’ve asserted here that we’re uncomfortable with the topic of anger as Christians.  We tend to censure the feeling in ourselves and others.  Anger is morally neutral.  It’s just a feeling, and it’s what we do with it that determines anger’s morality.  And, we’re to be honest with ourselves and others about it.  So what do we do with it? Here are some general Biblical principles about overcoming anger problems in your life.

First:  Be honest with yourself.  It's the first step to overcoming any problem, but I think our Ephesians 4 passage speaks to this directly.  Keep your anger in the light where it will not do you any harm.  Keep it in the light of God's truth and in your prayer life with him.  Don't pretend not to be angry when in fact you are.  Learn to identify your own anger signs:  tight chest perhaps, flushed face, brooding thoughts, fantasies of retribution or revenge, imagined lecturing of others, and being easily provoked (going off a lot when the situation doesn't call for it).  There are more of course.

Second:  Your anger does not accomplish God's righteousness.  This bit of wisdom comes from the James 1:19 and 20.  James also advises us to be slow to anger, and to be quick to listen and slow to speak.  Good advice.  It is so, so helpful for me to remember this verse when I'm angry.  I've learned to a) not write email when I'm angry; b) to talk to my Lord when I'm angry; c) to talk or debrief with a trusted friend when angry.  My anger does not accomplish God's work and so it's not particularly helpful.  My judgment is often impaired when I'm angry.  Yours probably is too.

Third:  A corollary to that is that the Bible never advocates using anger as a motivation.  God never tells us to work up a good head of steam about something so that we can go out and accomplish great things.  Coaches, teachers, counselors, politicians and others will advocate this but scripture does not.  Quite simply, anger is not a very good motivator for doing things in life.  It's very often a waste of energy.  A mature person (believer or not) will not rely on anger in order to accomplish things, or take responsibility or action, or to resolve disagreements.  Anger is not a good motivation.  People who say it is are misled and are generally compensating for weak self-confidence.

Fourth:  I think it is a general goal in the Christian walk not to be an angry person.  Angry people are cynical, sarcastic, impatient, and often rude.   In Galatians 5, "outbursts of anger" is a sign of a sinful lifestyle or a sinful season of life.  By contrast when we are living godly, spiritual lives we are self-controlled.  Christians are angry a lot, by the way.  We get angry over subcultures that don’t live the way we think they should.  We get angry when church isn't run the way we think it should be.  We get angry when things around us are changed without our blessing or consultation.  We get angry when politicians pass laws that don’t support our Christian morality.  We get angry when the wrong songs are sung at church or when the carpet color is changed and on and on.  We won’t generally admit that we’re angry about these things, but we are.  In general, this kind of anger wastes a great deal of energy, causes a great deal of needless conflict, and is quite frankly an expression of our self-centeredness. And here lies a clue to number five.

Fifth: If a goal of the Christian life is to reduce our anger, truly not to be angry people, it requires that we pursue humility.  Humility is the counter-balance to being easily or chronically angry.  It is the anti-anger state of mind.  Once we are angry we rid ourselves of anger not by denial, repression, or minimizing it, but by submission to Jesus. We have to lay down our anger at His feet, saying, “I’m really not entitled to this.  It’s not helping me; it’s not accomplishing your righteousness.” Psychology advocates control or management of anger (count to ten, take a deep breath, use visualization) but not really diminishing personal anger.  I think Christ would have us give up our anger, certainly not foster or harbor it.  In doing so, we become less self-centered and more Christ like.  So when your least favorite politician proposes legislation advocating anti-Christian life-styles, don’t get angry.  Get down on your knees and pray, “Forgive them, Lord, they don’t know what they’re doing!  Choose to "love your enemies" and not hate them.

?1??a?Tremble, ?2??b?and do not sin;
?3??c?Meditate in your heart upon your bed, and be still.


1 I.e. with anger or fear
a Ps 99:1
2 Or but
b Ps 119:11; Eph 4:26
3 Lit Speak
c Ps 77:6
New American Standard Bible : 1995 update. 1995 (Ps 4:4). LaHabra, CA: The Lockman Foundation.